Want more out of Japan but face doesn't fit? Be TOFITR

Maximize your moments as the only foreigner in the room to thrive 

by Glenn Newman

I recently served as a “private sector representative” in a panel discussion before an audience of foreign graduate students at the University of Tokyo. Many of the students will soon be seeking employment in Japan; because I have spent 25 years living in or traveling to Japan, the last 10 or so running my own small, Japan-focused business, I was asked to speak about networking and building a reputation in Japan.

“Networking” brings to mind often-contrived group events, name tags and awkward attempts at conversation with strangers. These kind of formal networking events do take place in Japan but are generally not a very effective method for building professional relationships here, at least with Japanese people.

Networking (even the word sounds coldly clinical) with Japanese people should not be impersonal or mercenary, and instant gratification (in terms of gaining business or employment) should ordinarily not be expected or sought. The objective should be building long-term trusting, reciprocal relationships; business or other opportunities might eventually flow from such a relationship, but the relationship is an end in itself, not merely a means to an end.

“Slow relationships” (like the “slow food” movement) allow people to have deeper and more nuanced experiences. In the case of relationships with Japanese people this means, over time, gaining something close to an “insider’s view” of various aspects of Japanese society, psychology, personalities and politics. Developing relationships with people from different walks of life, rather than just from your own narrow profession or company, also dramatically increases the opportunities for gaining insights into Japan as it really is.

For anyone interested in Japan, such insights into this society are treasures in and of themselves. For anyone who also does business in Japan — whether as a businessperson, lawyer, accountant, journalist, academic or whatever — your “stock in trade” is often Japan itself; that is, the representation you make to your clients and colleagues, implicitly or explicitly, is that you have special knowledge, insights or connections in Japan that enable you to better perform your job. To the extent that such Japan know-how is broadened and deepened as a consequence of having non-superficial relationships with Japanese people, the value of that “stock” surely rises.

The most enlightening and enriching experiences (both personal and professional) I have had in Japan have occurred when I have been The Only Foreigner in the Room (or TOFITR). What can we non-Japanese do to increase our TOFITR experiences? There may be as many answers to this question as there are Japan Times’ readers, but here are a few thoughts.

1. Relationship-building

It bears repeating that relationships should be built patiently and incrementally. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are relationships with Japanese.

The foundation of any good relationship is trust. In some cultures, trust comes easily (easy come, easy go?). Not in Japan. No matter how long the relationship continues, you also shouldn’t expect many Oprah-style soul-baring moments. And if you’re never invited to a friend’s home or introduced to his or her family, don’t take it personally (and if you are invited over to meet the family, realize that it’s a pretty big deal).

2. Be an advocate for the Japanese

At the risk of overgeneralizing, Japanese tend to have a hard time communicating their thoughts and objectives to foreigners. The language barrier plays a role but the cultural barrier is just as high. The honne/tatemae phenomenon — where people avoid expressing their deepest feelings or true opinions (honne) and instead say either what they think the other person wants to hear or at least something less likely to ruffle feathers (tatemae) — is a genuine obstacle to effective communication by Japanese with non-Japanese, especially in a business setting.

Japanese will sometimes tell you that they can make each other understood nonverbally through a sort of cultural telepathy called ishin denshin. I suspect Japanese actually don’t understand each other as well as they think they do; they’re just more willing to live in a sea of grey than many non-Japanese are, especially Westerners. In any event, ishin denshin falls flat with many non-Japanese, who typically require more direct (and verbal) means of communication.

One value you can bring to your relationships with Japanese is to help them be better understood by their foreign counterparts by acting as a “honne translator.” In a recent deal I worked on, the Japanese employees of a U.S. company were frequently asked to make demands of their Japanese business partners that were unreasonable or impossible, at least by Japanese standards. Rather than simply refuse or methodically express their objections, the Japanese side was noncommittal and repeatedly made vague promises to do their best. The Americans were left with the impression that the Japanese both agreed with their position and would eventually succeed in implementing it. Nothing could have been further from the truth.

Ultimately my job was to act as a “no man” for the Japanese side by telling U.S. management that what they wanted simply wasn’t possible. This opened a path to a more workable, Japanese solution.

Acting as an advocate for Japanese in their dealings with foreigners doesn’t mean you have to always agree with their point of view. It just means that you must make the effort to understand what the Japanese side truly thinks and to express those views in a manner more likely to be comprehensible and persuasive to their foreign counterparts.

It is also not necessary to “win” every argument; just ensuring the Japanese side has their “day in court” is often enough. Being an advocate for your Japanese colleagues can engender trust and good will, both critical elements to increasing your TOFITR opportunities.

3. Self-suppression

I can’t speak for all nationalities, but Americans are raised with the notion that self-expression is a paramount value. People are encouraged to actively express their opinions, their emotions and their own individualistic personalities.

Self-expression is parcelled out more selectively in Japan, generally to smaller circles of longstanding and trusted friends. Outside of these circles, some degree of self-suppression is usually the order of the day. Self-suppression does not mean being insincere or untruthful, but it does mean that a person may at least temper his or her views or feelings if their full expression might result in offense or disharmony. Japanese also tend to be more reserved in their behavior than people steeped in more self-expressive cultures.

What does this mean for a foreigner desiring more TOFITR experiences with Japanese? For one, it means that you perhaps shouldn’t be quite as quick or vociferous in expressing your opinions and feelings as you would be with your own compatriots. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t let Japanese people know your views; on the contrary, one of the main values a foreigner brings to the table in a TOFITR situation is a different perspective, which is usually welcomed and appreciated. However, you should probably spend more time trying to understand what the Japanese in the room are saying and feeling and, when you do let your views be known, do so in a nondogmatic and nonconfrontational way.

4. Language

There really is no substitute for learning Japanese. Native-level fluency is not necessary or, for most of us, possible, but, with time and practice, everyone can become functional in Japanese. Because Japanese tend to be less proficient in English than many other nationalities, communicating in Japanese is even more important when seeking TOFITR experiences.

Even many Japanese who speak English well seem to find using the language exhausting. Recently, a Japanese woman who speaks excellent English told me that she finds foreign business trips fatiguing because she has to spend so much effort avoiding mistakes when speaking English. This kind of perfectionism is common among Japanese, and is one obstacle to English language learning here, but it does mean that speaking Japanese is more appreciated and necessary than in other countries where people are more open to speaking foreign languages. Moreover, especially for long-term foreign residents of Japan, it is a sign of respect and consideration to make an effort to speak the local tongue rather than, in effect, compelling the Japanese to accommodate you by speaking English all the time.

Your odds of being TOFITR will be a lot higher if you are willing to speak Japanese, even if it is sometimes broken and your comprehension is only partial. If someone has to be uncomfortable in a foreign language, let it be you.

5. Join a community

Some of the long-term foreign residents I know who have been most successful at increasing the quantity and quality of their TOFITR experiences have done so by joining a community with common interests, such as martial arts (aikido, kendo, karate, etc.), performing arts (kabuki, contemporary dance, etc.) or the visual arts (such as photography), or any number of other activities. Cliched though it may be, Japanese frequently identify themselves primarily as members of groups, so becoming part of a group can be an effective way of being TOFITR.

In many cases, a non-Japanese person’s relative lack of Japanese language ability can also be mitigated by being part of a group, especially when, as with the martial arts and many of the performing or visual arts, conveying ideas verbally may take a back seat to other forms of communication.

I’m preaching to the choir for many of you. For others, go forth and be TOFITR!

Glenn Newman ( is an attorney and former long-term resident of — and frequent business traveller to — Japan. The Foreign Element takes a look at the lighter side of life in Japan on the last Tuesday of the month. Send comments on this issue and story ideas to .